High Altitude Balloon Science

Students at Lenoir-Rhyne University join a NASA program to launch high altitude balloons that will capture images and data during the 2017 solar eclipse.

HICKORY — The black bear at the entrance to Lenior-Rhyne University witnesses a lot of things on campus from its rocky perch. 

But what the University’s mascot has seen and even heard over the past few months is unique. 

“This is our ground station...” “...This has to be 900 mhz also then...” “...Because you pull this, it doesn’t pull there, the wire needs to stay around this connector...” 

Comments like these are heard from a group of people huddled around a satellite dish and other high tech equipment sitting in the middle of an open grassy area near the chapel and science building. The lawn is adjacent to the main campus quad. 

During the past few months, the lawn has served as a launching area for high altitude balloon research. The group of engineering and computer science students, along with their professor, are assembling and launching high altitude research balloons to capture images of the 2017 total solar eclipse over North Carolina. 

“It’s been fun but it’s also stressful, because even though you check everything out multiple times, once the balloon goes up, it’s gone and there’s no bringing it back. And if something fails…oh well,” says Larry Jump, a senior. 

The group also hopes to live stream the images to the University, the nation and the world. 

“There are multiple cameras in the payload,” says Doug Knight, Ph.D. and professor of physics and earth science, as he shows me a round disc with a small camera and lots of electronics attached. “This camera does still images, so it will take all of our still images when we reach altitudes of roughly 80-100,000 feet.” 

He then picks up another disc with more electronics and a slightly smaller camera. 

“This will take video at altitude and then transmit this back down through the radios,” explains Knight. “We will get all of those still and video images and we will load those into the laptop and then stream them to a NASA website in real time.” 

The helium filled balloons leave campus quickly. The climb rate is about 1,000 feet per second. 

“Everything is connected in this entire project,” says Jake Robinson, a junior engineering and physics major. “The payload is connected to the ring, the ring is connected to the parachute and the parachute is connected to the balloon. So you have to hold the balloon down until right before you launch, and then as you launch you have to make sure everything is vertical and that means you run with it to make sure everything is straight. It all happens really fast because the balloon goes up fast.” 

The balloon will soar to roughly 100,000 feet above the ground; that’s the edge of space. 

Along its journey, instruments will measure temperature, humidity, altitude and acceleration, as well as location. Those sensors, plus the cameras, can only weigh about six pounds. They’re packed into specially designed payload containers to help them survive not only the rough ride, but also a huge temperature range: from -50 degrees to about 20 degrees Fahrenheit. 

With that much equipment, the balloon will take about 90 minutes to climb to its highest altitude. At that point, the balloon will expand to roughly 30 feet in diameter. And then, because the air is too thin, it will burst. 

“The balloon simply shreds,” explains Knight. “And then it comes screaming down to earth at about 25 feet per second. It took 90 minutes to climb to its highest point but it only takes an hour to come down.” 

But it doesn't always travel straight down. The air currents of the jet stream, which can race at 150 miles per hour, has carried the team’s balloon more than 90 miles away. 

“The GPS tracking device is another part of the payload,” says Juan Hernandez, a junior. “We check on a website and it will tell us where it is. It also gives us a blue line of how it travelled and the altitude. We’re usually pretty lucky in being able to recover everything. But one time it did crash in the ocean. That one was gone.” 

NASA is backing the balloon eclipse project. Lenoir Rhyne is one of 50 colleges and universities along the path of totality that are involved in the challenge. Besides spectacular views, and good science, there’s something else. 

“If you can do this, they can do any kind of job and really anything a company can ask for,” says Knight, as he watches his students practice setting up the ground station for the balloon. “STEM related jobs, which means science, technology, engineering and math are big things for a lot of jobs going forward. And if you can do space related work, which I would argue is the hardest environment to make things work, they can do jobs at a company where they are asked to do things out of the box. These guys knew nothing about any of this when we started working on it, and look what we’ve been able to do.”

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